Italian leading men

Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani… there are plenty of Italian actresses who made it big on an international stage, and if you extend it out to include people from outside Europe who were closely involved with Italian cinema you’d also have the likes of Ursula Andress, Anita Ekberg etc to add to the mix. But as for leading men… well, you have to concede that it’s a different matter entirely.

Several Italian stars made international films:

  • Rossano Brazzi became a frequent ‘latin lover’ in American films like South Pacific and Summertime.
  • Vittorio Gassman appeared in films for Robert Altman
  • Giancarlo Giannini became a busy character actor appearing in international productions, as did Franco Nero

However, beyond that it’s pretty paltry. Just think of all the main Italian postwar stars:

  • The ‘matadors’ (Nino Manfredi, Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi) hardly ever ventured out of Italy. France, occassionally, maybe the odd US film shot in Rome, but beyond that… nada
  • Toto, Franco & Ciccio and Alberto Sordi were solidly Italian.
  • Marcello Mastroianni avoided Hollywood like the plague (paraphrasing his quote on the subject: ‘You need to regret something in your old age, and my regret will be never having gone to Hollywood’)
  • Even stars from popular genres like Giuliano Gemma, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Maurizio Merli etc etc hardly ever made it away from Cinecitta.

One of the reasons for this is language. A lot of the Italian stars didn’t speak convincing English, and while this wasn’t a problem for female performers, it was seen as being disadvantageous. This explains why the likes of Giorgio Ardisson and Luciano Stella never made an impact away from their home turf. From a character actor’s perspective, it also helps explain why the likes of Erico Maria Salerno and Gian Maria Volonte never made as much of an impact on the international markets as Gabriele Ferzetti and Adolfo Celi.

But, even beyond that, it does seem to have been an Italian cinema tradition to have drafted in non-Italian leading men more commonly than women. Why, for instance, did Fellini shoot La strada with Richard Basehart in a role that, quite frankly, could have been played by any number of Italian leading men? Or, think of the spaghetti western genre and you find that most of the stars (Gianni Garko, George Hilton, Robert Woods, Craig Hill, Lee Van Cleef, Peter Lee Lawrence) were foreign. They may have gained Italian nationality at some point in their career, but… I wonder if some of this was a hangover from the co-production techniques of the 50s and 60s, when it was common for French and German companies would insist on featuring a star from their own market.

And, beyond that, there also seems to have been an Italian tendency to celebrate their starlets more than their stars. Just about any old bimbo was able to generate mountainous amounts of press in the late 70s and 80s, but only Lino Banfi really became a star in his own right in the same period. Perhaps this all harks back to opera, with it’s succession of tragic heroines, not to mention the melodramas of the 50s (the most popular films ever made in Italy).

About Matt Blake 889 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

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